The Magic of the Theatre: Six Great Plays in History

Curious Minds Online Course
Film Info
Cinema Extra
Display Category:Curious Minds Speaker Series


No matter how old or recent, no matter how forceful the vision of the writer who conceived it, a great play is a living thing, open to new interpretations and historical meanings.

In this series from Robert Fothergill, a former Chair of the Theatre Program at York University in Toronto, we’ll examine six great plays that have left their mark on history, exploring how they appeared and were received in their own moment, and the ways they can still hold meaning for spectators of our own day. As we journey from Ancient Greece to the stages of Shakespearean England to the bright lights of Broadway in the mid-20th Century, we’ll use visual images and striking video clips to bring these dramas to life in their various incarnations, and explore the challenges and possibilities still alive in them today.

Led by Robert Fothergill, a former chair of the Theatre Program at York University in Toronto. An award-winning playwright, Dr. Fothergill's plays, which include Detaining Mr. Trotsky, Public Lies, The Dershowitz Protocol, and recently Let's Go - a Godot Prequel, have been staged in Toronto, off-off-Broadway, and at Theater Bonn in Germany.

Course registration: $49 (Hot Docs Members: $33, $27, Free)

Curious Minds Speaker Series sponsored by

Hollywood Suite

The six lectures in this series are now available to stream. You can access each lecture at your leisure by clicking the "Watch Now" button in your confirmation email, or by visiting your My Shows page.

Lecture 1: Oedipus Rex: An Ancient Greek Classic
The most famous of all the surviving plays of classical Athens, the dramatic tale of a highly esteemed king coming to the ghastly realization that he has indeed, as foretold, killed his father and married his mother, has been analysed and debated for over two millennia. What does it still have to say about the human condition and the nature of “the tragic” in human affairs? Is it still possible, in spite of the huge changes in the conventions of theatrical presentation, to mount effective productions of it today?

Lecture 2: Shakuntala: An Indian Masterpiece
Dating from perhaps 400 CE, by the classical Indian poet and dramatist Kalidasa, known as “the Shakespeare of India”, Shakuntala is little known and seldom performed in the West. Arising, like Oedipus Rex, from a theatrical tradition quite remote from our own, it can be viewed in some ways as offering its audience the very antithesis of the starkly horrifying perspective furnished by Sophocles. The story of a king who loses and recovers his wife, the mother of his child, Shakuntala exhibits some surprising correspondences with elements in the last plays of Shakespeare.

Lecture 3: The Tempest: The Bard’s Farewell to the Stage
Probably the final play of Shakespeare’s sole authorship, and often regarded as a kind of summation of his recurring themes, as well as his “farewell to the stage”, The Tempest presents the actions of a deposed ruler who uses magic to bring his enemies within his power to punish or forgive. It has given rise to many provocative modern productions, a number of them offering representations of the “savage and deformed slave”, Caliban, that radically challenge what seems to have been Shakespeare’s conception of this character.

Lecture 4: Death of a Salesman: The Elusive American Dream
First produced in 1949, and running for over 700 performances on Broadway, Arthur Miller’s play quickly came to seem like the definitive confrontation of the supposedly buoyant optimism of post-war America. In thrall to all the delusory elements of the American Promise of prosperity and fulfilment, Willy Loman is both a victim of circumstances and his own worst enemy. Is this undisputed classic still a play for our time?

Lecture 5: A Raisin in the Sun: A Black Theatre Landmark
Lorraine Hansberry, “young, gifted and Black”, brought A Raisin in the Sun to Broadway in 1959 where it was the first play by a Black, female author to be staged there, as well as the first production by a Black director. A beautifully crafted drama, it presents the story of a Black family in Chicago, led by a newly-widowed mother, nearly defeated by the improvidence of the son, but rising at the end to the fraught challenge of moving into a hostile white neighbourhood. Perilously optimistic in its time, it has prompted a number of “re-imaginings” in recent years, most notably the Pulitzer Prize-winning Clybourne Park in 2010.

Lecture 6: Waiting for Godot: The Epitome of the “Absurd”
On its first appearance, in French, in January 1953, Samuel Beckett’s anti-drama of two shiftless vagabonds on a deserted road, whose desperate, futile wait for an expected saviour is twice punctuated by the arrival of a bizarre master-slave duo, was both ridiculed as nonsense and hailed as the epitome of the “absurd” condition of modern man. Endlessly reinterpreted, and regarded as a 20th century classic, does it stand up to a contemporary “revisiting”?

Streaming for all Curious Minds lectures is available worldwide. Need assistance? Visit our FAQ page or email us at